The muscle-flexing — or perhaps I should say feather-preening, since we’re talking about the Peacock Network — began early Sunday morning as NBC Boston made its debut. And it never really let up.
NBC’s mission: to convince the audience its programs are so popular that viewers will not only embrace its decision not to renew its affiliate agreement with WHDH-TV (Channel 7) but will also follow NBC to its new spot, with its own identity in the Boston TV market.
That’s an audacious gamble, but NBC Boston got off to a forceful start on day one, and as it did so, the contours of the challenge now facing a diminished Channel 7, without the power of NBC’s lineup behind it, became clear. The division between have and have-not could hit home even harder as we move into a week of prime-time shows and NBC Boston, rather than Channel 7, gets to air popular network programs.
NBC Boston, a brand-new station owned and operated by the network, began the day by saturating its airwaves with pointed reminders that NBC has switched broadcast addresses. A little after 7:30 a.m. Sunday, when many viewers were probably still nursing New Year’s Eve hangovers, Willie Geist, the quick-witted host of NBC’s Sunday “Today’’ show and one of the network’s most appealing personalities, popped up on NBC Boston in a promo, saying: “We are so excited to welcome you guys at NBC Boston to our NBC family.’’
That opened the floodgates for a daylong stream of ads spotlighting NBC stars such as Jimmy Fallon, Lester Holt, Matt Lauer, Savannah Guthrie, and Al Roker. One ad used the familiar three-note NBC musical theme and featured the tagline: “Same chimes. New channel.’’ There were frequent reminders that NBC Boston is now where viewers will find the likes of “Sunday Night Football,’’ “The New Celebrity Apprentice,’’ “The Tonight Show,’’ the “Today’’ show, “NBC Nightly News,’’ and the Golden Globe awards ceremony.
At 10:30 a.m. Sunday, when “Meet the Press’’ went on the air, the contrast between NBC Boston and Channel 7 grew more pronounced.
As NBC Boston broadcast an engrossing interview by host Chuck Todd with former White House press aides Nicolle Wallace, Ari Fleischer, and Joe Lockhart about the antagonistic relationship between President-elect Donald Trump and the media, Channel 7 was airing yet another weather forecast. That was followed by news stories the station had already broadcast earlier in the morning.
The network’s gambit is not a sure thing, by any means. Building an audience is no easy task. NBC’s attention-grabbing debut does not diminish the importance of, or audience for, local news. Only a fool would count out tenacious Channel 7 owner Ed Ansin, who has responded to the corporate divorce from NBC by packing his station’s program schedule with local news coverage. Ansin has beaten the odds before.
But what is there on Channel 7’s new post-NBC schedule that can legitimately be called appointment television, the way that “This Is Us’’ or “The Voice’’ are? Moreover, is there really a public appetite for as many newscasts as Channel 7 will now air, especially with a regional all-news network, New England Cable News, already on the air?
(NBC Boston, New England Cable News, and Telemundo Boston are sharing a new studio and other resources, including anchors and reporters.)
Channel 7 will offer a new 9 p.m. nightly newscast that will follow the syndicated show “Family Feud.’’ Roughly half of each 24-hour period on Channel 7 will consist of newscasts — including five straight hours of news in the morning — with other time slots occupied by syndicated shows like “Extra’’ and “Celebrity Name Game.’’ That’s a lot, even for an outlet that has long billed itself as “the News Station,’’ eager to slap the blaring “Breaking News’’ logo on anything that moves.
There is room within Boston television news for a station devoted to in-depth, long-form reporting. But Channel 7’s stylistic signature when it comes to news coverage is a flashy approach that places a premium on speed and noise, not depth.
Somehow, the station now has to find a way to stay connected to viewers, despite the absence of the NBC network programming that has been a cornerstone of its identity since Channel 7 became NBC’s Boston affiliate in 1995, replacing WBZ-TV (Channel 4). It’s worth remembering that strong lead-ins from prime-time NBC hits like “ER’’ were key to boosting ratings for Channel 7’s 11 p.m. newscast in the 1990s, establishing the station as a powerful force in the competitive Boston TV news market.
During the daytime Sunday, by pure happenstance, an icon of the Peacock Network surfaced on Channel 7 in the form of an infomercial for a greatest-hits video collection celebrating Johnny Carson’s reign on “The Tonight Show.’’ When the infomercial popped up around midday, it was as if the ghost of NBC was haunting Channel 7. We’ll see in the months ahead whether that proves to be more than a metaphor.